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In South Sudan, Russian Pilots Weren't Under Contract to Fly to Pibor Conflict Zone & Didn't: UN Negligence?

By Matthew Russell Lee, Exclusive

UNITED NATIONS, January 11 -- In the wake of the mass killings in Pibor in South Sudan, still not counted by the UN Mission there, behind closed doors a new reason for the failure to protect civilians is being offered by some: that Russian helicopter pilots refused to fly to Pibor.

  Several Western members states on Wednesday expressed outrage to Inner City Press about this and said that now Bangladeshi helicopters and pilots are being brought in from the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MONUSCO.

   "But that's only for two months," a source told Inner City Press, "we need a longer term solution."

   Inner City Press has asked other members of the Council, and not surprisingly there is another side to the story, one that makes the UN, rather than the Russians, look bad.

  The story is that the Russian pilots were NOT assigned to, had not yet signed an agreement with, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Rather, four of the Russian helicopters were still under contract with the defunct UNMIS mission, moving equipment from north Sudan. Four others were on loan "from Chad... since the time of the referendum" in South Sudan.

   "Maybe when asked to come and help civilians, they should have," one Security Council member told Inner City Press, echoing what US Ambassador Susan Rice is said to have intoned in the Council's consultations.

  "But," this Council member said, veering from what Rice said, "they weren't required to and it's DPKO's fault that they didn't have an agreement with the Russians. Now they're trying to blame it on them."

   The issue appeared, in disguised or compromised form, in this week's Security Council Press Statement on South Sudan, which says "[t]he members of the Security Council expressed concern with UNMISS' shortfall of operational air transport assets, which seriously impacts its ability to carry out its mandate, and urged the Secretary-General to continue efforts to address this problem."

  While without this further background the above sounds like the standard complaint that member states don't give enough helicopters to the UN, in this case it was the negligence of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations under chief Herve Ladsous that led, in the crucial moment, to the " shortfall of operational air transport assets."

  Further inquiry by Inner City Press finds that the previous "letter of assist" expired on December 1, 2011. The new draft agreement, not provided until December 15, proposed changes such as putting machine guns on the helicopters that remained, and remain, under consideration in Moscow. In this circumstances, only the Russian defense authorities, "not Hilde Johnson," can order the helicopters into service.

   As is often the case with the UN, secrecy and lack of transparency, even in the name of being diplomatic, has resulted in a failure to protect civilians.

(c) UN Photo
Russia's copters on tarmac in Juba, DFS letter of assist and Pibor blamegame not shown

   It is not dissimilar to the UN's continued failure, repeatedly minimized and not explained by Herve Ladsous, to have a Status of Forces Agreement for the peacekeeping mission in Abyei, which played a role in the bleed-out of four Ethiopian peacekeepers hit by a landmine.

  Inner City Press is now informed that the interim "inter-mission" agreement for helicopters for UNMISS will involve not only the Bangladeshis from the DR Congo, but also copters from the all-Ethiopian UNISFA mission in Abyei.

  In fairness to the UN, its Department of Field Support says it has tried since Russia pilots were attacked in November 2011 -- the main incident of four involved police shooting at Russian helicopters on the theory they were supplying the Lord's Resistance Army -- to speak with the SPLA and the Russian authorities, to get assurances of safety. But the fact remains: UNMISS knowingly operated without the Russian helicopters, up until many people were killed in Pibor without UNMISS showing up.

  Now UNMISS, under envoy Hilde Johnson, is criticizing the Pibor County Commissioner's estimate of the number of people killed, while neither providing a UN estimate or promising to seek and provide one in the future. The entire incident now smells of cover up, including on the helicopter issue, and would seem to require a formal investigation. But who will call for it? Watch this site.

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Click here for Sept 23, '11 about UN General Assembly

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These reports are usually also available through Google News and on Lexis-Nexis.

Click here for a Reuters AlertNet piece by this correspondent about Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army. Click here for an earlier Reuters AlertNet piece about the Somali National Reconciliation Congress, and the UN's $200,000 contribution from an undefined trust fund.  Video Analysis here

Click here for Sept 26, 2011 New Yorker on Inner City Press at UN

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